PUNXSUTAWNEY — When the Punxsy baseball team fell behind 2-0 in the top of the first inning and left the bases loaded in the bottom of that inning Wednesday in the District IX Class AAA Championship, no member of the Chucks panicked.
The Chucks knew they were going to hit, and by the time the team's eight-run fourth inning concluded, Punxsy was on its way to its eighth consecutive district crown thanks to a 10-5 victory over St. Marys.
That confidence and belief in itself is what excites Chucks manager Mike Dickey as Punxsy prepares for the first round of the PIAA playoffs against the WPIAL's Hampton Talbots at 2 p.m. Monday in Brockway.
"We're ready. We wish it were tomorrow," Dickey said Friday night. "The guys are excited, and that's half the battle — the fact that they want to be there, and they want to continue on. These seven seniors don't want their careers to end."
Catcher and No. 3 hitter Jordan Mesoraco is one of those seven seniors. As the younger brother of Cincinnati Reds prospect and 2007 state champion Devin Mesoraco, Jordan said the team's mentality hasn't changed since the playoffs began two weeks ago.
"(We're) coming out trying to get the 'W,' still trying to stay focused, not looking ahead to any other games and trying to look forward to winning another state title just like four years ago," he said.
The Chucks (14-7) will have to surmount Hampton (16-4) Monday in order begin that state-title journey. The Talbots are the WPIAL (District VII) runners-up after they suffered a 7-0 loss to undefeated Elizabeth Forward Wednesday in Washington.
During Hampton's four defeats this season, it scored a combined seven runs. The Talbots have been hot as of late, as their loss to Elizabeth Forward snapped their 15-game winning streak. Hampton's last regular-season loss was April 13 at Butler, 4-2.
Hampton reached the WPIAL final with a 10-6 win over Thomas Jefferson May 23 and 3-2 victory over Hopewell May 25. Center fielder Cory Callan hit a walk-off, two-run single with the bases loaded to defeat Hopewell, which ended Punxsy's season in the first round of last year's state playoffs, 2-1. The Vikings scored both runs in the first inning, and the Chucks stranded 10 runners on base during that game.
The only comparable opponent between the Chucks and Talbots this season is Kittanning, which Hampton beat 4-1 April 14 and 18-6 April 29. In Kittanning's first game of the season, the Chucks won in a rout, 16-1.
Dickey said it's difficult to say how the Chucks match up against a team he hasn't seen in person. Instead, he's focusing on what his team brings to the conversation.
"I know what we have, and if we play to our capabilities, we will be in the ball game," Dickey said. "If we play well, they're going to have their hands full."
As he had the first two playoff games, senior right-hander Joe Pisano will take to the mound for the Chucks Monday.
Pisano has pitched all 14 innings for the Chucks this postseason, allowing six runs (four earned) on eight hits. The key stat that Dickey takes away from Pisano's last two games is the 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio — 16 Ks, four BBs.
"Joe's been impressive. Each start, it seems he builds upon the previous start," Dickey said. "You limit base runners ... and opportunities for the opponent, and you have a better chance to win."
Pisano did not allow a hit during five of the seven innings he pitched against St. Marys Wednesday. And that's a St. Marys team that hit .337 during the regular season.
As Pisano continues to pile up the outs, Punxsy's confidence grows and grows.
"Once JoePa gets on a roll, not a lot of people can hit him," said Mesoraco, who was 3-for-3 with an RBI double Wednesday. "Once he's focused, he pitches well and shuts down the other team. That's what we like to see from him."
Offensively, Dickey said the Chucks have been hitting well in practice this week. Wednesday, seven of Punxsy's nine starters had at least one hit, and that's after arguably its best hitter, Tyler Skerkavich, was 0-for-3 with a walk.
"We have been intense in practice. The practices have been spirited," Dickey said. "They've been impressive from an offensive standpoint."
During its run toward the 2007 state title, Punxsy's toughest test before the state championship game came in the first round. The underdog Chucks upset the undefeated West Allegheny Indians, 3-2, in eight innings in the first round of the 2007 PIAA playoffs.
Now, on an eight-game winning streak, Punxsy's 2011 squad is trying to win its first state playoff game and go from there.
"We're not looking beyond it, but we know this is the toughest one to get," Dickey said. "We're excited about it. We're excited to have the opportunity. The guys are working hard, they're focused, and they want it."